Today, we give shape to the automobile. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The new Chrysler Airflow was
called the "Car of the Future" in 1934. In one
leap, it took us from the four-square shape that
Ford had set with his Model-T to a radical
streamlined form. America was quite unprepared for
its rounded shape. Before 1934, the flat fenders of
the Model-T had given way to ones that looked like
inverted tablespoons, and cars were nearer the
ground. But little else had changed. Then the
Chrysler Airflow! It was so far from known
automobiles it could have come from Mars.
Even if it were beautiful, the public would've had
trouble accepting it. And few people have ever
called it pretty. The car, which looked a little
like a VW Beetle, was a grand commercial failure.
The streamlining itself didn't even work. Designer
Dick Nesbit tells us that Orville Wright did
wind-tunnel tests and found the Airflow offered
more drag than previous cars had.
Yet "Car of the Future" became a catchword. One of
my early childhood memories was competing to be the
first one in my family car to spot one of those odd
little machines on the road. If it failed
commercially, it didn't fail to seize the
imagination. Imitators sprang up right away. The
Lincoln Zephyr and the 1938 Cadillac picked up the
theme. But the streamlined form mutated. Car bodies
-- once round -- now developed a kind of linearity.
Strong horizontal lines tapered into tailfins.
The tailfins went out of fashion in the 1960s, but
the horizontal lines stayed. By the early '60s,
America found a car design it liked, and little has
changed in the 30 years since. Streamlining had
finally led us to a shape we haven't seen fit to
Nesbit concludes by saying:
The design evolution of the American automobile
continues, as vigorous and promising as ever.
But he's an automotive designer who
looks closely at small changes. I'm not; I see cars
with a layman's eye. The Chrysler Airflow was the
greatest single change I've ever seen. It was a
failure, but we couldn't take our eyes off it. It
really was the "Car of The Future," but in an odd
way. It started the only major change that automobile
design has undergone.
So the first generation of cars imitated
horse-drawn carriages and culminated in the
Model-T. The second generation of auto users saw
the evolution of today's form. That evolution began
with the Airflow and finally settled down on bland
cars like the 1960-vintage Ford Falcon.
Now we're ending the third generation of the
automobile. It began with the straight lines of the
1960s cars and, to my inexpert eyes, today's cars
seem pretty much the same. Of course, we're also
starting the fourth generation. I wonder if that
could mean that we're finally about to see another
reshaping of our automobiles as radical as the old
Chrysler Airflow. I wouldn't be too optimistic.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds